25 History Books Written By Women
A Slate survey shows that large percentages of popular history books are written by and about men. Perhaps this is why we labor under the delusion that history books are, by their very nature, books for men. But it raises an important question: where are the history books written by women?
Of the 614 recent bestsellers Slate examined, 75.8 percent were written by men. About one-fifth of those books were biographies, of which 71.7 percent had male subjects. Basic Books publisher Lara Heimert told Slate, "The conventional wisdom has been that men read more non-fiction and women read more fiction, though ... I’ve never actually seen a study proving that to be true."
There are plenty of women writing history. Speaking with Slate, industry professionals rattled off dozens of names:
[Knopf editor Andrew] Miller pointed to more than a few female historians who write for popular audiences, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stacy Schiff, Drew Gilpin Faust, Karen Armstrong, and Pauline Maier. Author Jean Strouse, who has written one biography each of a man and a woman (J.P. Morgan and Alice James), added Jill Lepore, Annette Gordon-Reed, Megan Marshall, Maya Jasanoff, Susan Pedersen, Sara Lipton, Linda Colley, Judith Thurman, Jennifer Homans, Patricia Limerick, and Mary Beth Norton to that list.
It isn't that women aren't writing history books, then; it's that people don't seem to buy them as much as they do men's titles. It's possible that, because of our silly, yet entrenched, cultural belief that history is a man's subject, readers overlook history books written by women.
Regardless of why female historians aren't showing up on the bestseller lists, this is a situation that needs correction. A recent study from the National Women's History Museum shows that women's history is under-taught in U.S. schools, and that isn't a problem that will correct itself.
If you don't feel that you know enough about women's history, or if you just want to read a history book written by a woman, any the titles here provides a great starting point. Many of these books were among those featured in the Slate study, and I have tried to keep my selections as contemporary as possible. History buffs, this one's for you.
1. Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford
The seemingly-perfect Kennedy family kept one dark secret for decades: their daughter, Rosemary, had an intellectual disability. Her parents committed her to an institution when she was in her mid-20s, and their cover-up would eventually lead her siblings to make efforts to improve the lives of people with disabilities.
2. The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
Copy for Stacy Schiff's The Witches: Salem, 1692 says, "Aside from suffrage, the Salem Witch Trials represent the only moment when women played the central role in American history." This is the story of how a group of teenage girls started a moral panic that would shape their country's culture of justice.
3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
In 1951, doctors harvested cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge or permission. The samples lived on after their host's death, and their use helped doctors find cures for childhood diseases and conduct new, innovative research. But, although money was exchanged along with the HeLa cells, her family would see none of it.
4. Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Little House fans know that Laura Ingalls Wilder considered her semi-autobiographical series to be historical fiction. Now, for the first time, readers can experience her original manuscript, as well as her diaries and letters, with scholarly annotations and beautiful illustrations.
5. Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back by Janice P. Nimura
In 1871, five Japanese girls traveled to the U.S., with the task of learning Western culture and bringing it back to raise a new generation of Japanese men. When returned to Japan a decade later, they brought new ideas about women's education home with them.
6. Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power by Susan E. Cahan
In the late 1960s, black artists demonstrated for the integration of art museums. In Mounting Frustrations, Susan E. Cahan interviews artists and digs through institutional papers to reveal the strategies of both sides in the decades-long tug of war that brought African-American art to New York City's museums.
7. The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship by Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown
What have women's friendships looked like throughout history? Examining accounts of friendly bonds between women from the last two millennia, Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown shed light on women's interior lives across the centuries.
8. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan
In post-World War I Paris, three men convened for six months to decide the fate of the planet. As Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, and Georges Clemenceau debated over what would become the Treaty of Versailles, none of them had any clue that their decisions would set the course for the deadliest war in history.
9. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis
Winner of the 2014 NAACP Image Award for an Outstanding Literary Work in the Biography/Autobiography category, Jeanne Theoharis' The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks examines the life of the civil rights activist as a dedicated activist, not merely a woman in the right place at the right time.
10. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang
The Japanese government denies it ever happened. In 1937, Japanese troops carried out a systemic brutalization of the people of China's capitol, Nanking. They raped, tortured, and killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians. But why and how did it happen? Iris Chang examines the incident, and the conspiracy to cover it up, in The Rape of Nanking.
11. The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport
In their time, the last Tsar of Russia's four daughters were the modern world's celebutantes. But who were they really, these girls who were doomed to be politically assassinated? In The Romanov Sisters, Helen Rappaport unearths the girls' family history and personal letters to tell their story.
12. The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney
The Woman Who Would Be King investigates how a daughter of nobility finagled her way into her country's highest seat of power — and how she lost it all.
13. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott
Belle Boyd seduced men wearing both blue and gray. Rose O’Neale Greenhow went to bed with Union officials to learn their secrets. Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a man and joined the Union Army. And Elizabeth Van Lew headed an abolitionist espionage ring in the heart of the South. These are their stories.
14. Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda Hirshman
Twelve years after Republican Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman to serve on the SCOTUS, Democrat Ruth Bader Ginsberg became the second. The two would remain the only women among the nine justices until O'Connor's departure in 2006. Despite their differences, the two forged a supportive friendship in the 13 years they worked together.
15. The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara W. Tuchman
The few decades that immediately preceded World War I saw social conflicts rise. The ruling classes fought to retain their privileges while the plights of working men and women sparked populist movements. As Barbara W. Tuchman portrays it, World War I was inevitable.
16. Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo
In this haunting memoir, poet Joy Harjo recounts a childhood where faith was an escape from her abusive stepfather, where the arts fed the soul, and where teen motherhood could turn out all right in the end.
17. Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own by Kate Bolick
What do you get when you combine biographies of prominent, unmarried women writers, a microhistory of an outdated word, and a memoir of a consummate single lady? One of 2015's best books, of course. Spinster offers a unique look at the position of single women in Western society throughout its history.
18. Unbowed by Wangari Maathai
In Unbowed, Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai details the experiences that led her to found the Green Belt Movement in 1977. Her activism combined feminism, environmentalism, and the fight for social change in her home country.
19. Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah
Adeline Yen Mah's mother died shortly after she was born. Her father remarried when she was a year old, choosing a cruel woman to become his children's stepmother. Although her other siblings would eventually be accepted as equals by their father's new family, Yen Mah would not.
20. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to the American Diaspora by Stephanie E. Smallwood
Plenty of books talk about the Atlantic slave trade, but few offer an in-depth look at the mechanics of the barbaric practice. From abductions in Africa, through the Middle Passage, and into new lives as human property, Saltwater Slavery examines how the slave trade operated and its impact on all involved.
21. Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron's Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer by Ada King Lovelace, edited by Betty Alexandra Toole
Ada Lovelace is widely known as the first computer programmer, a title she earned thanks to her work on Charles Babbage's analytical engine. Lord Byron's most famous daughter comes to life through her own letters and Betty Alexandra Toole's careful editing in Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers.
22. The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee
Asian-Americans' contributions to the U.S. are frequently overlooked, a mistake Erika Lee aims to correct in The Making of Asian America. Lee's book follows the experiences of Asian immigrants and their descendants from the 16th century to today.
23. Bold in Her Breeches: Women Pirates across the Ages edited by Jo Stanley
Who were the pirate women? Their history has been marred by speculations on their sexuality and superstitious rumors regarding their power. Discover the realities of life for pirate women in this anthology: Bold in Her Breeches.
24. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
The Hermit Kingdom of North Korea continues to fascinate us today, more than 70 years after Western powers divided the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel. In Nothing to Envy, journalist Barbara Demick uses interviews with North Korean defectors to show what life is like under the shadow of Kim Il-sung.
25. Florynce "Flo" Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical by Sherie M. Randolph
Both a feminist and Black Power leader, Florynce "Flo" Kennedy was a force to be reckoned with. In this biography, author Sherie M. Randolph showcases black feminism's influence on both women's and civil rights movements.